Learning and Performance

I read this post on rethinking e-learning by Clark Quinn with interest.

Clark writes:

But in business, our goals are not learning, our goals are improving performance. And courses, particularly the “event” model for courses, are one of the worst ways to go about achieving learning for performance!

When I say, “our goals are not learning,” I mean that our focus needs to be on the ultimate performance needed, not on the associated learning. There are times when the appropriate support will be from peers or mentors, or from job aids, not just from courses.

Though this sounds convincing to me, I have to re-think what learning and performance mean to me, to a business.

Which is more important to you – performance or learning? Which is more important to business – performance or learning? Which is ultimately more important to you or human?
I still think learning is most important. Why? Performance is often measured by others, our customers, employers, teachers, or self and though they are important, they would not be enough to make our life more fulfilling or enriching. On the other hand, learning could be measured by ourselves, and we could often perform better as a result of better learning, and so learning is more likely to be under our/your control, enabling us to become an autonomous learner.
Our individual performance may not improve without learning, though some may perform better because of being compelled to perform, but if the performance improvement is not self motivated, would it last long?
So would learning be our ultimate goal, not performance? In the short run, performance is a goal for the business, and personal performance is also a personal goal, but in the long run, learning is a goal for ourselves to develop as a person, in all areas, not just performance in business. Besides, as we may not be employed by any business for life, we need to think about how we could develop further through continuous life long and wide learning.
And so we shouldn’t be relying on performance as a benchmark only, as often in a complex world, our individual performance is often influenced by others.  Our learning is in our own hands, and we could often perform better through improved learning and innovation.
So, which is more important to you, even if it is in business? Learning or performance?

10 thoughts on “Learning and Performance

  1. Yes, most education is outcome based, and therefore performance focussed rather than learning focussed. So, education is still important. What I would suggest here is to reflect on the importance of learning, as it could be a life long journey that is more than the mere “education” and performance in education or at work. Besides, most of us could learn (including people with mild disabilities), given the right support and environment. However, not everyone is able to perform to the standards required in education or at work due to various constraints and factors.
    In the past, we have been focussing on learning organisation. Now should we be focussing on learning networks, communities which would provide additional avenues for individuals to develop and excel in performance? Without learning, would individual performance be sustainable?

  2. I think learning *is* important, particularly personally, and organizationally as well. It’s just that it’s too easy for training units in the org to implicitly focus only on the learning, not on the end goal. When you’re focused on goals (particularly when you’re in an empowered organization), learning naturally has to happen, but it’s to achieve ends. It’s this rethink around performance and goals that is a necessary mindshift for the learning unit in organizations. Accompanying this is a need to make an effective learning infrastructure, culture and tools, to facilitate learning, but to the organization’s end, not intellectual self-gratification.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I fully agree with you on the achievement of goals needed, and learning is important both personally and organizationally.
    Here is my suggestion on the Needs and Learning under an organisation setting What we often find would be overlapping areas in the needs and learning of individuals, teams, networks and organisation. How to facilitate learning to the organisation’s end? An organisation could leverage and balance the needs, motivation and learning of individuals, teams, networks in the learning process. This needs to be done through continuous innovation and improvement at work, at an organisation, network and individual level. Would this be the ideal learning organisation we are aiming at? Should we appraise individuals in the learning process? Would intellectual self-gratification be also part of the learning at an individual and organisation level? Each individual learner should feel proud of the organisation one is working with and be a champion and ambassador of the organisation in order to help in leading the organisation forward, IMHO. It’s the people in an organisation which makes learning happen continuously, and so I would argue that self is as important as the whole organisation, in the learning process. Performance and goals would be more likely to be achieved if individuals are empowered to learn with and through the teams, networks.

  4. John, and Clark, I know from our past and present interactions that we share a similar worldview. We seem to have hit semantic differences.

    Of course, learning is vital to the progress of humankind. However, it’s a subset of the things we need to accomplish to make progress (big picture) and do fulfilling work (individual frame).

    Performance, i.e. doing what’s right, is the ultimate goal.

    Does this require new thinking? A reconceptualization and new vocabulary? Absolutely.

    But the cart is doing/action and the horses, learning, are what moves the cart forward.


  5. Hi Jay and Clark,
    I greatly appreciate your comments and wonderful insights.
    Performance is the ultimate goal. Agreed.
    How could a person and an organisation be able to achieve goals? By making an effective learning structure, cultures and tools, and to facilitate learning, as Clark mentioned. How can we keep the cart/doing action, and the horses, learning, are what moves the cart forward, as Jay mentioned. It is through this planning, design of structure, action, thinking, reflection process, followed through with continuous improvement and innovation, with creativity, and new thinking as Jay put it, that would facilitate the achievement of renewed and challenging goals, in response and adapt to the dynamic business environment and the needs of the customers.

    So learning as a whole in an organisation, in a community, in a nation and across international networks are the means and goals towards progress of humankind. And this puts learning back to the centre-stage, where performance as a goal could be a way to gauge the degree of learning individuals has achieved or aiming at.

    The SARS epidemic and the recent H1N1 pandemic fully illustrates the importance of learning with and through the cooperation and collaboration efforts of local and international networks to combat the spread of disease, and develop global solutions to prevent its recurrence. Could we apply similar learning to organisations and networks? This will allow us to achieve more ambitious goals which are often far more too difficult to reach with individual efforts only. Performance could be further improved through collaborative inquiry and appreciative inquiry within and amongst local and international networks.

    So, we share a similar worldview, well said Jay.

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